Noe Valley Voice March 2007

Florence's Family Album

Editor's Note: In February of 1993, when this essay was first published in the Voice, Florence's husband Leo Holub had just finished a photography commission for Stanford University, where he had earlier spent more than 20 years as a photographer, artist, and faculty member. Today, new generations can enjoy Leo's photos at a retrospective exhibition being held in downtown San Francisco. Part II of "Leo Holub: Where the Light Is Right," featuring 70 images of 20th-century artists, San Francisco cityscapes, and natural wonders observed from the Holubs' porch on 21st Street, will run March 1 to 31 at the Himmelberger Gallery, 445A Sutter Street (

It seemed like old times this December, getting our Christmas card out so late that we had to update it to a New Year's card!

But there was a good reason for such tardiness: my man Leo and I were involved in a rewarding but time-consuming project. (This column is really Leo's story, but modesty prevents him from telling it, so with pride I shall!)

It all began in early autumn, when a group of Stanford Associates (the honor society of alumni and friends that encourages volunteer service to Stanford) approached Leo with a proposal. They asked him if he would consider printing a limited-edition portfolio (100) of four of his classic Stanford photographs, to be sold to raise money for much-needed services in the arts. Leo said he would be pleased to participate.

Invitations went out, culminating in a reception and exhibit of Leo's "Stanford Classics" and other work at the Stanford Art Gallery on Nov. 13, 1992. There, after being introduced in triplicate and in glowing terms by Stanford dignitaries, Leo faced his audience to deliver a delightful speech, a portion of which I would like to share with you here:

"It is true that I joined the Art Department in 1969, but I first came to Stanford in the fall of 1960 as a designer and photographer, upon the invitation of the planning director. The incoming freshman class also arrived and, unbeknownst to one another, we grew to fall under the spell of Stanford. That class went on to commencement in 1964, but I stayed on for another 16 years--unmatriculated, ungraduated....

"As I slowly drifted along my river of time, in a rowboat without oars, the student population remained on the banks, forever age 17 to 21, creating for me a sort of Doppler effect of aging. Except for the clothes, the students I see tomorrow will look exactly like 'my' class of 1964. This building, too, is 'my' building--the Thomas Welton Gallery, its cornerstone laid in 1916, the year of my birth. My building, the focus of most of my Stanford triumphs, climaxing in this glorious evening."

Leo's job as a photographer at Stanford's Planning Department included working with the Development Office, in particular with a woman named Ann Rosener. In 1964, Ann compiled 245 of Leo's prints, to form the exhibition "Stanford Seen."

These photographs of campus life filled all the university gallery's rooms, and the exhibit set an attendance record. In 1976, it was followed by a second show of Leo's work, this time of 145 prints.

Another triumph came when Dr. Lorenz Eitner, the forward-looking head of the Art Department, added photography as a studio class and offered Leo a space in the basement of the Art Building to teach it.

"It proved to be a success, and I was added to the Art Department faculty in 1969," Leo told his audience. "The need for such a class was shown by the fact that the students spent the night before the first day of registration in sleeping bags outside the Art Building. As the interest grew, another lecturer was added, and during our 10-year tenure, we together nurtured 3,500 students, with a success rate of 98.7 percent."

When Leo retired from Stanford in 1980, he was taken aside and told, "We are not going to give you a watch or a golden handshake. But our curator is organizing a surprise show of some of your prime graduates featuring 13 'all-stars' who have gone on to graduate school, teaching jobs, or exhibitions." Stanford titled the show "Thanks to Leo!"

Two years later, the Stanford Alumni Association published a book of Leo's photos, Leo Holub, Photographer.

During the last decade, Leo has spent a great deal of time photographing the artists whose works comprise the Anderson Collection of Modern and Contemporary Prints. He gave Stanford a working portfolio of these prints, which was installed last fall in conjunction with the Anderson Collection exhibition at the Stanford Art Gallery.

But at the end of his "Stanford Classics" speech in November, Leo asked for "a few parting shots." And with that, he raised his camera to his eye and, moving left to right, snapped a series of panoramic shots, capturing his beaming audience on film forever.

I too have been an admiring audience for my husband for over 50 years. So I must add that here on the home front his photography has necessitated some minor adjustments.

For example, when the first big exhibition required that hundreds of prints come out of the darkroom to dry, every flat space in our Noe Valley home was utilized. The deck out back, the rugs inside, and the beds upstairs were all covered with damp photographs.

Occasionally, they got stepped on, and often after they dried, we went to bed only to find ourselves enveloped in clammy blankets. This led to an alternative drying technique: I ironed every damp photograph on the kitchen ironing board, face down--that is, until Leo built drying racks in the basement.

It also took a while for me to learn that I must not turn on the washing machine when Leo is using his enlarger. The power drain--oops--results in a ruined, underdeveloped print and a waste of extremely expensive paper.

One of the benefits of having a photographer around the house, however, has been the marvelous visual record Leo kept of our sons as they grew and matured.

He kept another album, too, of his students, or his "kids," as he calls them--although many are now approaching middle age and have children of their own. They keep in touch, send photographs, and visit whenever they come to town.

A few months ago, in fact, one of Leo's "all-stars" came to town on a photo assignment and stayed with us for a week, sleeping on the living room couch. We couldn't help but notice how comfortably he fit into our lifestyle, with his camera gear and photographs (which were breathtaking, by the way).

I have also grown accustomed over the years to opening our home to a fascinating array of Leo's mentors and peers. One of our most beloved visitors for over 40 years was Leo's personal friend and adviser, artist Imogen Cunningham. I remember one time when Leo photographed Imogen while she was sitting in a rocking chair on our back deck. The light was fading fast as Leo fiddled with the focus on his subject, so Imogen quietly but knowingly slipped her foot under the rocker to keep it still. She always said that she particularly liked that photograph--perhaps because she had contributed to its success.

At the age of 75, my husband the photographer is as busy and productive as ever. So we were well into December before Leo came out of the darkroom and finally got around to helping with the Christmas cards.

At that point it seemed natural and appropriate for us to have our printer son, Jan, lithograph the same photograph that was used to illustrate the "Stanford Classics" invitation. Our cards finally went out with a reproduction of "Inner Courts, Roofs" (1961) on the face, and with a hastily inscribed "Happy New Year from Florence and Leo" inside.

P.S. In early January [1993], to our amazement the mailman brought an elegantly engraved invitation from William Jefferson Clinton to attend his inauguration in Washington, D.C.

Leo wasn't invited, just "Florence Holub," with no idea why--unless someone up there reads the Noe Valley Voice!

I didn't attend, but watched the inspiring proceedings on TV--shouting, waving, and clapping joyously from the well-used couch in our Noe Valley parlor.